- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Should government agencies with hidden agendas be allowed to carry out those agendas by giving money to special-interest lobbies?
The answer has to be no, because government funding of lobbying groups subverts democracy, especially when those groups pose as grass-roots organizations.
The guilty party here is the Environmental Protection Agency, but before getting into the details, some background is needed.
The EPA has a legal charge to reduce air pollution from automobiles and other sources. The proven way of reducing pollution is to use clean technologies such as catalytic converters and improved fuels.
Today's autos produce less than 5 percent of the pollution of those built 30 years ago. Thanks to clean technologies, Americans could drive 135 percent more miles last year than they did in 1970, and our air would still be getting cleaner.
Trying to clean the air by discouraging driving has not been as successful.
We have spent $100 billion on mass transit in the past 30 years, yet in 1998 transit attracted just 20 percent more riders than it did in 1970. During the same period there was a 135 percent increase in auto driving, so it is clear Americans are not going to give up the convenience and speed of their cars for mass transit.
Despite the success of technological controls on auto pollution, the EPA is not satisfied. It wants to actively discourage people from driving by creating disincentives for auto use. Congress has traditionally frowned on such social engineering, so in 1996 the EPA began giving large grants to anti-auto groups.
Peter Samuel, editor of Toll Roads Newsletter, uncovered this program while reviewing EPA documents. Mr. Samuel believes cities can reduce highway congestion through a combination of well-designed road improvements and "value pricing" electronic tolling of highways or selected highway lanes at higher prices during rush hours than during off-peak periods.
Mr. Samuel found the EPA wants to reduce "auto dependency and urban sprawl" by killing proposed highway improvements. Since this is not exactly within its legal charge, the agency has tried to achieve its goal in part by giving at least $8 million in grants to anti-highway groups.
Ironically, increased congestion makes urban air dirtier. Cars pollute more in stop-and-go traffic than at free-flowing speeds of 45 to 55 miles per hour. So congestion reduction can produce positive results for air quality.
But the EPA has decided that the evil is not pollution but autos themselves.
In the past four years, the EPA has given well more than $6 million to "transportation partners" such as the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Bicycle Federation of America to support those groups' efforts to reduce auto driving. Those groups work with a network of local and state groups to lobby city, state and federal officials to limit highway growth.
The EPA has also given more than $2 million to groups seeking to curb low-density suburbanization so-called "sprawl" by promoting "smart growth." Smart growth, the latest urban planning fad, promises to do to the suburbs what previous planning fads, such as urban renewal and public housing projects, did for the cities.
Smart growth's goal is to discourage auto driving by increasing suburban densities (and therefore congestion) and promoting "pedestrian-friendly" (meaning auto-hostile) neighborhoods. The EPA knows suburbanites don't want this, so it encourages the groups it funds to promote stronger regional governments that can impose their will on suburban areas.
Mr. Samuel also found the EPA has funded and designed Web sites promoting anti-auto and smart-growth policies. The transact.org Web site includes a list of highway projects that the groups funded by the EPA are trying to kill.
Normally, a government-funded Web site has a dot-gov suffix, but the EPA sites have a dot-org suffix, misleadingly suggesting they were built by non-governmental organizations. When Mr. Samuel sent an e-mail to the webmaster at smartgrowth.org, the reply came from an EPA employee who admitted that the EPA used the dot-org suffix so as not to "alienate potential users."
Last spring members of the Senate Appropriations Committee asked the EPA some hard questions about these programs. On June 16, in a letter to Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, EPA Administrator Carol Browner promised to reform the agency's grant-making program "to improve its accountability and balance." The promised reforms have not been implemented, but the EPA has given several more grants to anti-auto groups.
The EPA should stick to its legal goal of trying to clean the air. Its policies of promoting congestion by funding anti-auto groups not only make the air dirtier, they subvert the democratic process.

Randal O'Toole is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute in Bandon, Ore. This article was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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